April 23, 2020 written by Loes Fokker
The idea that there are opportunities in this tragic time of COVID-19 may seem at first harsh, insensitive to its many victims. But on further reflection we realize that this is a natural phenomenon and a global human response that compels us each to improve ourselves and learn from this catastrophe. We talk to Geo Hanzlik, performance-coach, about leadership in times of crisis.
“The decisions leaders are making today during the crisis are not essentially different than those they made on a day to day basis before the crisis. It’s just that the stakes are higher, the consequences are greater, and they cannot afford to hide out and remain indecisive.”
We talk to Geo Hanzlik, performance-coach, about leadership in times of crisis, how these times affect ourselves and our companies. The idea that there are opportunities in this tragic time of COVID-19 may seem at first harsh, insensitive to its many victims. But on further reflection we realize that this is a natural phenomenon and a global human response that compels us each to improve ourselves and learn from this catastrophe.
Geo shares his experience and perspective from New York City, where he coaches high impact entrepreneurs, startup founders and CEOs confronting challenges and crises.
Loes Fokker: How is this crisis changing us? Our previous lives have come to a sudden halt. We’re suddenly confronted with situations and choices we have never faced. What are you observing? And what do you think we will come from all this?
Geo Hanzlik: It is a unique time. We are in the midst of something nobody has seen before. A lot of people are suffering. I think we all are, each in our own way. Yet, at the same time, this is an incredible opportunity for all of us to reconsider how we have been driving our businesses, where we have placed the priorities in our lives, where our focus is.
It gives us pause. A lot of us are physically pausing, even within the domain of where we walk, in how much we engage with the world. This has shrunk a great deal and yet it has been expanding via the internet, allowing us to be more connected than ever. This leads to a strange duality. Where we physically are unable to move but we can connect across a far wider field.
LF: This time is forcing people to ask bigger questions, particularly about their lives and its pace.
GH: I live in New York, always a fast-paced place to live, with a lot of quick decisions, a massive amount of ambition. What is curious is to notice people in my community and the clients I work with are stepping back and asking themselves these bigger questions.
Is this worth it? Is this where I want to live? Do I feel satisfied? Is something touching me on a deeper level, in my soul? Or, what is this really about? The pace of our previous lives was hyper-accelerated: causing us to skip over much that is deeply meaningful. This pause allows us to make discoveries and gives us a chance to ask some real questions about our lives. When this moves to the next phase, what will that look like? What kind of person do I want to be? How do we want to be working? What is meaningful for us? What is best in service to ourselves and the people we love? Are we going to add value in some way other than the way we thought we were?
LF: Will this shift the way in which we lead companies and how we relate to each other? Asking ourselves different questions, we can find new answers. Will this influence the way we lead companies, or the kind of companies that we are leading? What will be the influence of leaders having these new conversations?
GH: I am curious to watch the trajectory of what all this means. But what I do see in the past 4 weeks is interesting. A lot of the younger CEO founders, (people with 5-10 years of experience) haven’t really seen this before, as opposed to some in older generations who have gone through a number of downturns. They haven’t had to make some harder decisions and are wrestling now with these questions: How do I support my people? How much am I responsible for their well-being? How much am I responsible for the wellbeing of the company? Are these at odds or do they go together?” There is no one right answer, obviously, but I think the questions are meaningful.
Depending on their industries, people are going to reach different decisions. I know one CEO in the food industry, with a business of 10 years that was expanding rapidly, who had to lay off the entire workforce. That was the right decision given what was happening in New York City. It was a hard decision, but also clear and direct. It allowed employees to make the decisions they had to make for their own lives, whether to apply for benefits or not.
Will it change the way people run their companies? I honestly don’t know. Humans are humans. We are stubborn. When things get back to where they were, if they ever do, the tendency is to fall back to old patterns. My sense is that with the people that have been really squeezed, including entrepreneurs and CEO founders who I know, must wrestle with really big questions for themselves. This mix between — How much am I responsible for my people versus How much am I responsible for my company — normally they don’t need to make these kinds of hard choices or realize that these are at odds.
There is a sharpness that people are beginning to show, They are not letting their emotions drive the decisions they have to make in a way that they used to. I think there is a laziness of thought, fears about hurting people or making hard decisions. Or making decisions for their companies that they were afraid to make. Or making decisions for people that they are challenged to make.
There is a thing that I like to call “flipping the switch.” This is what I call the decision point when we realize that we simply don’t have the luxury to harbor feelings of insecurity, or to indulge personal uncertainties. It’s the moment of realization that it’s do or die: we realize the imperative to make hard, sharp decisions. In that crucial moment, new muscles are developed, stronger characters are formed. I am curious to see what will come out of this crisis, and who will emerge as leaders.
LF: What makes the difference whether to move forward or fall back to old habits? From your experience as a performance coach, if the normal tendency is that people fall back to their old habits, what propels a leader to do something different? Something innovative, or creating positive change?
GH: I think suffering and hard experience are probably the best things for forming a leader’s character. One of my clients, back in the fall, had just raised a 30 million capital injection for his company. He needed it, and had worked hard to raise it. The night before it was going to hit his bank account, the lead investor pulled out. Overnight he went from trying to make payroll to not having any money. For him it was a complete shock. It threw him into the most brutal, exhausting, phases of his life. Trying to keep the company alive, raising money, what it took for him to make it happen. I remember our conversations during that time, saying to him, “When you go through it, and you will, you are going to be a different person altogether. He and I were laughing just a few days ago, and I said: “You are Corona-ready!” He said the current crisis was simply another day at the office. It did not bother him at all. It felt normal to him.
LF: So what’s the change of habits there?
GH: Well, at this stage, it’s not so much a habit as it is experience and presence. He’s seen a version of this before, so he realizes he has room to maneuver. And he’s less emotionally invested. This kind of maturity comes through experience and suffering, from feeling the pressure. He was deeply tested in ways that no one would choose. But the result is now he’s now acclimated to high stakes pressure and tension. He learned what it’s like to face the extinction of his company day to day for many months, so he no longer overreacts or gets frightened.The big problems don’t create blowups or exaggerated emotional reactions: he stays centered and addresses the issues with a calm head. Experience has taught him to drop the emotions and look for solutions. He believed so deeply in his company that he was not going to let it die. There’s a kind of inner resolve: He knew the value of his company, which made fighting for it easier. If it were not really valuable, he would have let it die. He’s now a mature leader who knows how to focus and prioritize when the world is falling apart.
So yes, there is some character building that happened there. He grew up during that time. The kind of leader that he is showing up as today is someone more relaxed under pressure, easier with his team in this time of crisis. Rather than showing emotion and fear, his shoulders have dropped a bit. How do you teach that? No coach can teach that, but I think you can train people to use whatever squeeze that they are in, to create that next improved version of yourself.
My sense is that people who have been doing their homework, and are committed to their own development, they are ready for whatever comes along. They find the growth opportunity available to them. Times of squeeze are useful. That’s where we build muscle. And it separates the leaders who have muscles from those who don’t, who don’t know how to use the time to grow.
LF: What’s the secret sauce? If people and leaders do a lot of personal development and have done their homework, what makes the difference to build that resilience? Because you know about change, you’ve worked yourself through it before. Is it a trust that you can do it? Or is it something else?
GH: From my experience there are a few factors that can improve one’s readiness to make that change:
Commit to growth and development
These people see the value in their own personal development and lean into it. And they are sincere about it. By personal development, I mean the investigation of who I am, how I engage with the people around me. How do I feel about myself? Do I believe in myself? What are my blind spots that affect things that I don’t even know? What’s my emotional wake? Meaning, what am I bringing into the room in terms of my emotions and is that a mood which takes over or not? Having a good sense of how I engage with people is essential.
Be good in what you do, and study your craft
If you are going to be an entrepreneur and engage, you must do your homework, read and understand the context that you are in, be knowledgeable and resourceful. We are all going to have gifts and natural abilities, but that only goes so far. You really need to be a student of your craft, taking it seriously.
Keep an open learning mindset
I am going to take what’s coming at me and seek to understand it, seek to get better and use it as an opportunity to learn about myself, my team and my market. The people I know who combine those components are extraordinary. They are fun to be around, and they generally make good leaders. Because they are open. They are curious and yet grounded and solid. They bring a sense of gravitas to the room that extends to their teams and their entire company. That is challenging but it’s critical.
In my opinion, waiting is never an option. This is the opportunity for change. Look at yourself, reflect, and do your homework. Do not let this time go to waste.
Our Mentors Who Inspire Us series explores different viewpoints on what leadership means, how to navigate the current world, and how to develop yourself further as a leader. Please let us know the changes you see, or you would like to see, in light of the Corona crisis in the comments down below.
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Stay open and curious.
Loes Fokker & Geo Hanzlik